book reflection: women with a mission

On the first Monday of each month, I offer some reflections on a book I have been reading. These are not book reviews, but a reflection on how the book interacts with my story and the questions that I currently have. I share where the book takes me with my questions, whether it conjures up new ideas or questions, whether it helps me frame my experiences and gives me things to ponder.

This month I am reflecting on Women with A Mission: Rediscovering Missionary Wives in Early New Zealand by Cathy Ross. (unfortunately it is no longer available, but I am happy to lend it to you if you dm me).

This is an older book, published in 2006, it has been sitting on my shelf for 11 years waiting for me to read it.  I am finally finding the time to read through some of the stash that makes up my ‘to read’ pile. So many missionaries that I worked with would talk about being inspired by the biographies of missionaries.  I have always felt a little lacking because I never read missionary biographies. I have always been more interested in the future than the past and so looking back didn’t appeal to me.  But reading, promoting and understanding the stories of women in mission and ministry is important to me so that was the motivation that finally got me to read this book.

Women with a Mission (WwaM) tells the stories of four missionaries in New Zealand in the 19th Century.  Charlotte Brown arrived in NZ from Britain in 1829 she lived in the Bay of Islands until 1835 and after a short period in Matamata moved on to Tauranga where she stayed until her death in 1855.   Anne Wilson arrived in the Bay of Islands from Jersey in 1833, she moved to Puriri near Thames where she stayed until her death at 36 years in 1838. Elizabeth Colenso was born in NZ in 1831, to missionary parents.  From 1844 to 1853 she was based in Ahuriri (out of Napier), she then served in Taupiri from 1854 to 1861,   then in 1875 aged 54 she moved to Norfolk Island where she served for 23 years.  Catherine Hadfield was born in NZ in 1831 to missionary parents.  In 1851 she moved to Otaki and she spent the remainder of her life in the area and around Wellington. 

These four inspirational women had a strong sense of vocation.  In fact Anne Wilson felt called to missionary service before her husband John and was influential in his developing sense of vocation. Yet in the eyes of the mission agency at the time they were considered ‘wives of missionaries’ rather than missionaries in their own right.   Their stories are fascinating and yet not well known.  WwaM values their contribution to our missionary history and allows us glimpses into their lives, struggles and faith. 

There are similarities between the four as well as differences, for the two that came to NZ as adults Anne Wilson struggled to learn Te Reo Maori and felt that limited her ability to connect and share spiritually with the local people.  Catherine Hadfield seemed the most courageous and bold and even travelled overland from the Bay of Islands to Otaki.   Elizabeth Colenso learned to paddle a Maori canoe and for years used one every day to get from her home to the school where she was teaching.

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There are many commonalities between the experiences of these missionaries so long ago and those of today.  The struggle with isolation and loneliness that many experience today was also common for these women, although exacerbated by the difficulty of travel and the lack of technology (they relied on letter writing which enables us these glimpses of their lives).  Elizabeth Colenso didn’t see another white woman for 7 years when she was based in Ahuriri.  They travelled frequently to visit other missionaries and they had to move their families several times as the recommended base of their ministry changed, their friends moved often too.   Just like today they also had disagreements with their mission agency.

There are also stark differences in how we think about and conduct mission today.  The most glaring in the attitudes of the missionaries to the local Maori.  It is hard not to judge these attitudes by today’s standards. For example “the missionary wives were expected to be role models of a superior civilisation” (page43).  Maori women were seen as needing education, and domestication, one of the ways that this was provided was by the missionary women taking them into their houses as home help.  These attitudes seem strange to us today.  These were women doing the best they could in the time they were in, and we also see that despite their rather maternalistic attitude to Maori they were dedicated to learning the language.  They also cared deeply about the Maori that lived in their areas and were considered with affection by the Maori.

Often in society and particularly in the church women’s contribution has been overlooked, their stories remaining untold.  This book celebrates the work and vocation of these women who contributed a great deal to the formation of Christianity in NZ. Reading WwaM made me think about acknowledgement.

In our society, today we are obsessed with acknowledgement, we feel that we need to be acknowledged with likes, followers, readers and reach to be significant.

What these women show us is that acknowledgement doesn’t actually reflect achievement or impact.  Their influence was extensive even though it was barely acknowledged at the time by the mission agency.  If they were alive today they would be described as “women who get shit done.” They got on with it, they had babies far from medical help, they ran their households when the daily grind would have been extensive (they wouldn’t have had any Countdown deliveries).  As they did these simple yet labour intensive tasks they touched the lives around them.

All four women had a sense of vocation centred in their faith that inspired them. Their vocation seemed simpler than today, they didn’t have to define it very specifically to a need, a people group and what their talents and strengths could provide.   They simply wished to bring their faith to a land that didn’t know it, then they just did what needed to be done in each situation they found themselves in.   Although they had rather prescribed roles focussed on creating a ‘civilised home life’ they didn’t spend time resisting and agitating for a change to that prescription.  Rather they managed their home and then did other things as well, whether that was translation work (Elizabeth Colenso), political lobbying against the government taking Maori Land (Catherine Hadfield)  teaching Charlotte Brown and Anne Wilson, or managing the mission station while their husbands were travelling.

It is good to be reminded that in NZ we have a strong history of women’s full involvement in the Church evangelism and mission.  That is a good base for the current involvement of women in all levels of mission and the Church.

Questions to reflect on

Imagine you are reading your story in another 200 years.   How would future commentators critique your work or ministry?

How can reading stories from others times help us become aware of our own blind spots?

What can we learn from the past that can help us with the future, when they seem so different?

Read the following excerpt:

this left the women with the central goal of reforming the family by emulating pious domesticity and a Christian family life.” They were the model of what Christian wives and mothers ought to be. Missionary wives were expected to ‘support’ (their husbands) in their work, bear and raise the children, and together provide, the “object lesson of a civilised Christian home.” Thus the Christian home and Christian family life became the raison d’etre of missionary wives.
— Women with a Mission (page 16)

Have you come across this idea of the Christian home as an object lesson in missions today?

Is it an effective ideal? What may be the advantages and disadvantages of such an attitude?

As always would love to hear your thoughts and opinions on this book